How to Identify a Red-Tailed Hawk
Not sure which hawk you're seeing? Here's how to tell whether a bird of prey is a red-tailed hawk, based on plumage, behavior and more.
Every birder knows it—hawks are some of the trickiest birds to identify. Sure, it’s almost always obvious when you’ve seen a hawk. But which hawk? Red-tailed hawks are widespread across most of the country, so there’s a good chance the big bird of prey you’ve spotted is a red-tailed hawk. Here’s how to know for sure.
Red-Tailed Hawk Features
Courtesy Gay Raab
Like other hawks, red-taileds have a sharp, curved bill. This allows them to easily tear apart their prey. (Here’s which foods hawks eat.) Their large, deep eyes provide excellent vision and are typically dark-colored. In the case of a juvenile red-tailed hawk, birding experts Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman note that the eyes are yellow. Four talons on each foot capture and hold prey.
From sharp-shinned to broad-winged, these are the 9 types of hawks you should know.
There’s plenty of bulk to this hawk’s stature, so you might assume it’s a heavy bird. But you would be wrong. Despite its height of 2 feet and its 4-foot wingspan, it weighs less than 3 pounds.
If you love seeing hawks, you must visit these hawk migration hotspots.
Red-Tailed Hawk Plumage
Identifying red-taileds based on plumage can be tough. The Kaufmans note there are many different plumage variations among red-tailed hawks, with a majority of the birds having white or light-colored chests. Others, however, have reddish brown or almost black underparts.
In the case of a “typical” red-tailed hawk, the bird sports dark brown feathers on its back, face and wings, and a light-colored belly streaked with brown feathers. The Kaufmans say reddish red-tails are referred to as “rufous morphs,” and they tend to live in the West.
Here’s how to identify a Cooper’s hawk vs a sharp-shinned hawk.
Do Red-Tailed Hawks Have Red Tails?
A surefire way to tell an adult red-tailed from a juvenile is to look at its tail. Adults feature red feathers on their tails, while juveniles’ tails are a darker brown. The Kaufmans explain that the younger birds don’t show reddish tail feathers until they are at least a year old.
Learn more about raptors, amazing birds of prey.
Red-Tailed Hawk Behavior
These hawks like to hang out perched along roadsides; they have a habit of soaring with barely a flap of their wings. They’re commonly found in open country, but they’ve moved into cities and suburbs in recent years.
Surprisingly, smaller birds might be more tolerant of a red-tailed hawk’s presence than other birds of prey. The Kaufmans mention that unlike Cooper’s hawks or peregrine falcons, red-taileds aren’t usually fast enough to catch a bird.
Next, discover why crows chase hawks.